Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuelsby Justin Isis

The Weird Tale, as a genre, plays host to stories of far more diversity than most other genres.

It can combine elements of horror, literary fiction, historical fiction, humor, adventure, science fiction, and fantasy. Examples abound of Lovecraftian experiments in cosmic dread and Machen-esque descents into sub-realities, but no author better epitomizes the trend than Mark Samuels. Alongside Ligotti and a host of infamous small-press authors, Samuels has infused the genre with staying power, primarily by concocting reams of nightmarish visions which haunt the reader’s psyche for years afterward.

This volume contains a dozen and a half tributes to the power of his storytelling. From recognized names in the sub-genres of s-f, we are treated to a lengthy sampling of gruesome and ingenious stories featuring charming cameos by “JBon” Quentin S. Crisp, and of course Samuels.

The anthology maps the human condition in all of its diverse interpretations, charting the heights of ecstasy and the pits of despair, the outskirts of human striving to the dark interior of the soul. David Rix should be commended for finishing the collection with a powerful novella about slag glass. Reggie Oliver provides another elegant foray into the subtly weird, while James Champagne embarks on a surprising and satirical quest toward an unsettling abyssal discovery.

Key notes of alienation, loneliness and piquant encounters with the unknown punctuate this eclectic grouping. Justin Isis’ fiction contribution was impressive and hypnotic, as usual, but actually stood out as more straightforward than expected. Several other tales spin into startling and experimental territory such as Yarrow Paisley’s. You’d have to dredge to the bottom of some of the stories to find the Mark Samuels references or influences, but they all embody the mystique in some way, and tend to culminate in spine-tingling climaxes, occasionally forsaking the technique of dénouement in favor of an aftertaste of memorable discomfort—take “The Singular Quiddity of Merlin’s Ear” for instance.

Some wacky psychedelic exercises congeal into startling imagery and a harrowing accumulation of sinister atmosphere. Having read three collections of Samuels’ stories so far I can attest that the tributes do play off the general feel of the weird aesthetic and can be appreciated by readers unfamiliar with Samuels’ works. Though plenty of references will go unrecognized by the uninitiated, there are many delectable riddles and unique literary panoramas to delight any connoisseur of vibrant speculative fiction.

The impressive array of authors and keen editing that went into this book produce a cohesive work which can only be fully fathomed with careful reading and open-minded enthusiasm. There were moments I doubted whether the stories could grapple with all their disparate ideas, or if they were spinning out of control, and many of them verged into quirky territory, lassoing in esoteric concepts and indulging in asides, only to swerve back on track by the end, justifying their eccentricities through sheer bravado and annihilating my preconceptions. Isis and Co. have conspired to sacrifice their time and shun easy categorization on a mission to enrich the body of literature about less conventional humans and do something different for a change.

Having read Marked to Die at a slow pace, I feel the need to revisit it. For the second half I did not want it to end, and it took more than one adjustment to orientate my reading mind. But use your peripherals, scratch past the ink with your fingernails and you’ll uncover deep and mesmeric emotional resonances worthy of the label of Samuels-esque.